Record Reviews

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, Opus 106, “Hammerklavier”

Daniel Barenboim, pianist; Command CC-11026 SD (stereo) and CC-11026 Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata occupies such a lofty and forbidding place in the repertory that almost any recording of it automatically becomes newsworthy. For a twentytwo-year-old pianist to attempt it is unusual, and for him to come so close to seizing its essence is startling. Mr. Barenboim, born in Argentina and now a citizen of Israel, is a pianist who shows signs of that precious musical attribute, growth. There is so generous a measure of musical thoughtfulness and maturity in this performance that one would hardly suspect the artist’s age, were it not plainly printed. Barenboim, who made his American debut at fifteen, is, on the strength of this recording, well on his way to becoming an old master at an early age.

Mozart: The Magic Flute

Otto Klemperer conducting Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus, with Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, and Ruth-Margret Pütz, sopranos; Nicolai Gedda, tenor; Walier Berry and Gottlob Frick, basses; and others; Angel SCL-3651 (stereo) and CL-3651: three records Bernard Shaw once wrote that Mozart gave Sarastro, the high priest of Isis in Die Zauberflöte, “the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God.” Shaw’s description denotes the special quality of The Magic Flute, which, more than any other opera, probes into the spiritual and ethical realm. It is a difficult opera to produce because side by side with its musical nobility runs a strain of low comedy, and its singers must be sensitive musicians as well as technical virtuosos (the bass who sings Sarastro must reach down to a low F, and the soprano who essays the Queen of the Night faces a set of coloratura runs that might make even a Lucia di Lammermoor tremble). The standard Magic Flute on records has long (too long, considering its sound) been Sir Thomas Beecham’s preWorld War II set, and it had been widely hoped that Otto Klemperer’s new Angel version would prove a worthy replacement. Like the old Beecham set, it omits the spoken dialogue and confines itself to the music. This is small loss. More important is the inferiority of most of Klemperer’s singers to Beecham’s. Two exceptions are Nicolai Gedda and Gundula Janowitz, who perform beautifully as the princely pair, Tamino and Pamina. But Gottlob Frick, a first-rate Wagnerian villain on the opera stage, lacks both the sonority and sublimity to make a convincing Sarastro, and Lucia Popp brings more accuracy than passion to the Queen of the Night’s bloodcurdling vocal runs. Moreover, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf seems misplaced as one of the Three Ladies. The chorus, however, sings beautifully, and the climactic scene, of Tamino and Pamina passing in triumph through their ordeals of fire and water, is magnificent. In other words, there are pros to counter the cons, but as soon as one is forced to weigh the balances, The Magic Flute loses some of its magic.

The Original Sound of the 20s

Paul Whiteman and his orchestra; Duke Ellington and his orchestra; Louis Armstrong, Joe Venuti, and Earl Hines, instrumentalists; Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Bessie Smith, and Bing Crosby, vocalists; and many others; Columbia C3L-35 (monaural only): three records Digging up these forty-year-old recordings may be musical archaeology of a sort, but the riches are almost as dazzling as those of King Tut’s tomb. The treasures include an entire LP side of Paul Whiteman’s band, with the legendary Bix Beiderbecke on cornet (his famous piano solo “In a Mist" is also included); “St. Louis Blues” played and sung by Louis Armstrong; a wonderfully bouncy “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” by Ted Lewis; Helen Morgan in “Bill”; some early Bing Crosby; and the incomparable Bessie Smith in a number called “I’ve Got What It Takes (But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away),” which contains the possibly symbolic lines “You can look at my bankbook, but I’ll never let you feel my purse.” Not every number on the six sides is equally stimulating or satisfying; for example, a perfectly dreadful piano-trombone rendition of “Home on the Range” is inexplicably included. But it is astounding how many songs from the twenties remain popular today, and how comfortable they still seem in their original settings. One suspects that the bass of these old recordings has been electronically strengthened; but the tinkering, if any, has been discreet, and the sound is as agreeable as it is authentic.

Shakespeare: King Henry VI, Part I

The Marlowe Dramatic Society with Richard Marquand, Mary Morris, William Devlin, Peter Orr, Freda Dowie, Gary Watson, and others, directed by George Rylands; London OSA-1374 (stereo) and A-4374: three records It can be argued that the touchstone of a complete Shakespeare recording is not its Hamlet, but its Henry VI. For to take the same pains with an early and dubious chronicle play as with one of the great tragedies is to show the kind of enterprise and devotion upon which great dramatic series are founded. London is now winding up its Shakespeare Quatercentenary celebration with the release of relatively uncelebrated works such as Henry VI (Parts I, II, and III), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and Titus Andronicus. From the outset, the London recordings have been especially strong in the chronicle plays, where their spacious pacing, meticulous language, and adroit though sparing use of music and sound ef_ fects have been combined to excellent effect. Henry VI, Part I benefits from this kind of care and clarity. Great sections — perhaps most of it — are not by Shakespeare at all; its history is absurd at times, its characterizations naïve and contradictory. Yet its personages include such worthies as Joan of Arc and her English antagonist Talbot, not to mention Richard Plantagenet and Charles VII of France, and its historical background encompasses the burning of Joan and the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Bernard Shaw may have presented a more appealing Joan on the stage (at least she doesn’t offer to sell her soul to the devil in return for victory), but Shakespeare’s figure, colored and distorted as it is by the nationalism of his day, has its own fascination. The players throw themselves into their parts with zest, as if performing Henry VI, Part I well were an accomplishment to be expected from any actor worth his mettle.